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Poster: light into ashes Date: Oct 5, 2010 9:01pm
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Black, White and Bluegrass (a little more history)

I can't respond to this as fully as needed, and am sorry this thread has already gone awry - but the suggestion that this was the "first" interracial bluegrass band needs serious adjustment.
If you're strictly speaking "bluegrass" touring bands, then yes, these guys could be pioneers in a sense. In a broader view, they're more like latecomers.

Interracial bands had long been a feature of American music, even on recordings. Take for instance, this band from 1909:

That's "pre-country", musically speaking, but country music itself is LOADED with black influence. The banjo? African. The fiddle style? Mixed, but largely created by African-American fiddlers in the 19th century.
The whole fiddle/banjo sound that we associate with white country was created by black musicians in the 17-1800s, and only later adopted by white players. There were still numerous all-black stringbands into the 1940s, playing much the same repertoire as their white counterparts. For instance, these guys in the '40s:

The Carter Family got numerous songs from a black guitar player named Lesley Riddle who traveled with them. Bill Monroe took a lot from a black fiddle-player named Arnold Shultz who played in a white band - in fact, he even played with him at square dances in the '20s.

A couple more examples from the Deep South:
Mississippi John Hurt got into recording in the '20s because he played with a white fiddler named Willie Narmour who admired him & recommended him to the record label. Or take the Georgia Yellow Hammers, a famous white stringband from the '20s - who happened to play and record with a black fiddler named Andrew Baxter.

These were not uncommon. Black & white 'country' musicians played together all the time in the south. It seems to have been more accepted than, say, the interracial jazz bands that ran into such problems on tour (maybe because these country outfits were in more rural areas & didn't really go 'on tour').

This article is an illuminating look at the origins of country music:
The sources for that article are several articles in the Black Music Research Journal on black Appalachian string-band music, which go into much more detail on specific musicians and their influences.
(I can't seem to find the full thing online, it's very academic, but here's a sample - )

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Poster: AltheaRose Date: Oct 6, 2010 6:39am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Black, White and Bluegrass (a little more history)

As usual ... wow!

I'm just going to take the opportunity to put in a plug for a neat group that I've been listening to lately, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who do African-American fiddle and banjo music and seem to be dedicated to reclaiming the African-American roots of country music.

They're not interracial; they're all black, which in itself seems pretty darned ground-breaking in today's folk/bluegrass/country scene. Not because of 1940s-style segregation, but, well ... how many African-Americans do you see at bluegrass shows? About as many as at GD shows, I'd wager.

They do all kinds of things -- fiddle tunes, blues, vaudeville, jigs that probably date back to the plantation -- and also have some old-timey versions of newer songs. (They cover Tom Waits, for instance, and IMO their version of Blu Cantrell's Hit Em Up Style wipes the floor with the R and B version, which was apparently a big hit -- not that I'd have known. I'm not at all drawn to R and B; way too slick for my taste.) Anyway, it's neat stuff, and an interesting reminder of the often-overlooked roots of American music.

Oh, and a picky historical detail re the first post in the thread: Since bluegrass itself didn't start until the 1940s, I guess the band featured on Sirius would also be one of the first bluegrass bands, right? Or were they old-time rather than bluegrass?

This post was modified by AltheaRose on 2010-10-06 12:53:01

This post was modified by AltheaRose on 2010-10-06 13:34:25

This post was modified by AltheaRose on 2010-10-06 13:39:20

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Poster: elbow1126 Date: Oct 6, 2010 9:48am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Black, White and Bluegrass (a little more history)

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are here at the archive. I am presently enjoying this offering:

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Poster: Mandojammer Date: Oct 6, 2010 6:12pm
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Black, White and Bluegrass (a little more history)

LIA - thanks for doing the leg work. Tons of very interesting info in your links - mucho appreciated.

As Althea mentioned, these are referred to as the first interracial bluegrass pairing based on their work in '47-'49 which is about the earliest that bluegrass as it is known was called "bluegrass". It may be an exercise in semantics and we are just arguing in the margins. No matter, the music is fantastic.

I sent an email to Sirius-XM asking for more info. It may be that the recordings from '47-'49 are the earliest known recordings of an interracial pairing of what was known as bluegrass. The line between old time music and bluegrass back then was pretty diffuse.

And with one notable exception, all of this discussion and info exchange is most welcome.

I am off to see if I can't get 120 pounds of running torque on the backflow preventer valve and get it shut another 1/32nd of a turn.

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Poster: light into ashes Date: Oct 6, 2010 10:14pm
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Black, White and Bluegrass (a little more history)

Yeah, there's all kinds of qualifiers to add, but "first interracial bluegrass band" is pretty accurate, since bluegrass itself was new.
I just didn't want it thought that these guys were a totally isolated example, since Bill Monroe himself got much of his style from playing with a black fiddler/guitarist (among other examples).

American music has been interracial for the whole last century - segregation, though, posed problems for the musicians themselves. Monroe, for example, obviously did not have any black players in his bluegrass bands - and integrated bands have always been rare. What usually happened is that black & white musicians would play together informally, for instance at rural dances or traveling shows - their bands might stay separate & go their own ways, but the players themselves would share, learn, copy, steal, and mingle...

I just think it's generally forgotten or overlooked that before 'modern' country music, there was a huge tradition of black fiddle & banjo players that fed into what we think of as white hillbilly music. (The song Sitting on Top of the World is a perfect example - originally done by a black string-band and taken up both by blues players and c&w swing bands.) At white dances, popular black musicians would often be hired, and frequently taught local white players.

This is an interesting article called "Why Black Folks Don't Fiddle", about what happened to the black fiddling tradition:

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Poster: AltheaRose Date: Oct 7, 2010 12:30am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Black, White and Bluegrass (a little more history)

That last article is absolutely spot on. (Or at least, it's what I was thinking, so that makes it "spot on" for me, LOL.) The fiddling tradition is associated with the black rural past, which of course is also associated with so much negative experience. Blues and jazz were post-slavery creations and clear rebellions, but it's hard to separate the idea of a black fiddler from a shuckin' and jivin' stereotype of a happy plantation darkie.

It's really a very brave and confident act for the band to call their latest album Genuine Negro Jig. Basically, that's saying, "Here is exactly what this music was labeled by white culture, and yeah, it was stereotyped -- but this is actually brilliant stuff."

I've had the good fortune to talk several times with the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History, and one of the challenges he talks about facing is the difficulty of creating a museum that will embrace the past in a positive and honest way when that past is so problematic. After all, part of the pleasure of history is projecting oneself into the past, and a young black person isn't going to be drawn quite so simply into an imaginary past where s/he would obviously be a slave or live an entire lifetime under Jim Crow.

Yet that past is the reality, and a complex reality at that. So it's a matter of embracing the strength not only of the obvious heroes (the Frederick Douglasses et al), but of the ordinary people who survived and made lives for themselves and created art in the face of it all -- even when the art itself was devalued as, say, a "genuine Negro jig" (while at the same time having a surreptitious powerful influence on American culture as a whole.)

But yeah, as the article in the link says, that does make it problematic to be a black fiddler today. BTW two fiddlers mentioned are in the Chocolate Drops -- Giddens and Robinson -- while the old fiddler mentioned is one who has taught them tunes. Maybe they, or a historically informed band like them, will play at the museum's opening in 2015 ... ?